The rocky hills and sea cliffs of Greece’s Aegean islands provide the harsh environment thorny caper plants need to thrive. Capers are an important wild edible in Greece; their flower buds, berries, and leaves add piquant flavors to island cuisine.
Archeological evidence shows that Mediterranean people have eaten capers for at least 18,000 years. By the time of the ancient Greeks, capers’ use as a favored condiment was well-documented. Theophrastus, chronicler of Greek plants used in the third and fourth centuries BCE, advised that wild capers growing on rocky cliffs were pungent and delicious, while capers grown on cultivated land were much less desirable.
On Greek islands today, women head for the rocky shores in June to hand-gather caper buds before the plant flowers. Since caper plants produce buds over a period of weeks, harvesters return to the same plant time and time again. In Η Κουζίνα της Κιμώλου (The Cuisine of Kimolos), Filena Venardou calls caper-gathering tedious, but says by summer’s end, cupboards of every island home are stocked with enough capers to last the year.
Caper buds are preserved three different ways: pickled in brine (the most common way capers are sold in America), cured in salt, or dried in the sun. I prefer salt-cured capers because the salt concentrates and enhances the capers’ sharp floral flavors, rather than overpowering them as brine can do. In Alaska, salt-cured capers are sold only in specialty stores and are expensive, so I use brined capers for cooking, leaving the salt-cured ones for use in salads and sauces that aren’t heated.
On the Greek island of Kimolos, islanders prefer curing capers in salt. To do this, Venardou says capers are well-cleaned, packed in coarse salt, and stored in glass containers. Prepared this way, capers will last indefinitely.
When a caper bush is allowed to flower, it forms an edible fruit called a caperberry. In Greece, caperberries are pickled in vinegar, and served with beans or fish, or as an appetizer with ouzo. Caper leaves are also pickled and used as a condiment to accompany fish or chicken, or added to salads.
Adapting one of Venardou’s recipes, I recently made scrambled eggs loaded with capers. Venardou described Capers and Eggs (recipe below) as succulent and unique, with the dominant flavor of capers. The resulting dish was unusual and delicious, but even for caper-lovers, more suited to lunch or dinner than breakfast, when we normally enjoy eggs.
While contemplating the interesting flavor combination of Venardou’s dish, the idea for a Caper Tart popped into my mind. The idea was so fully realized that my mouth immediately started to water. I imagined serving the tart with salmon; its richness would complement the sharp flavor of capers. I couldn’t wait to try this combination, so we had both dishes for dinner that night.
Caper Tart was an immediate hit, and an ideal accompaniment for pan-fried salmon. While mixing the tart’s filling, I added soft white cheese and thyme to bridge the gap between mild, slightly sweet eggs and piquant capers. A crisp olive-oil crust took the place of bread in the meal, and its flavor and texture added complexity to the tart.
Caper Tart is relatively easy to make. While its flavors mesh beautifully with salmon, it would be delicious with any kind of fish or poultry, served on its own with a crisp green salad, or as part of an appetizer spread. The leftovers are tasty eaten cold, especially because the olive-oil crust retains its integrity even after days in the refrigerator.
Caper Tart (Καπαρόπιτα)
Makes one 9-inch tart. Serves 4 -6.
Using a little butter in the crust (filo) isn’t traditional (nor is this tart), but it adds good flavor and flakiness. Olive oil can fully replace the butter, and the crust will still be tasty, but slightly tougher. More water is needed to make the crust if butter is left out. The dough may also be made by hand. If mixing by hand, make sure the olive oil is evenly distributed in the flour and use a fork or pastry cutter to add the butter.
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup olive oil
2 Tbsp. cold butter, cut into small chunks
3 – 5 Tbsp. ice water
1/2 cup capers in brine
2 cups diced onions, 1/4” dice
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp. dried thyme, crushed, plus 1 tsp. for sprinkling over tart
1/2 cup manouri, ricotta, or mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup feta, crumbled
For the crust: In a food processor, mix the flour, salt, and olive oil until the olive oil is thoroughly incorporated into the flour. Add the butter and pulse three or four times to break up and distribute the butter; when you are done, the butter pieces should be the size of small lentils. Add 3 Tbsp. ice water and pulse to mix. Pinch together some of the dough to see if it holds together. If it does not, add small amounts of water, pulsing to mix, until the dough holds together when pinched. Dump the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap and knead lightly until the dough holds together. Shape the dough into a flat disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Roll out the dough on a well-floured pastry cloth until it forms a 10-1/2 inch circle. Use the rolling pin to lift the dough and place it over a 9” tart pan with removable bottom. Press the dough firmly into the sides and bottom of the tart pan. Cut the edges of the dough so there is just enough to fold under and cover the sides of the pan with a double layer of dough. Use a fork to prick tiny holes all over the bottom crust.
Press a double layer of aluminum foil into the dough (this will prevent it from forming bubbles when it bakes). Bake the crust for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for 5 minutes or until the crust is set and lightly golden. Remove the tart crust from the oven and place it on a cooling rack. Reduce the oven heat to 350°F.
For the filling: Drain and rinse the capers. Put them in a bowl of cold water to soak for 15 minutes, drain, and spread out the capers on a paper towel to dry.
Sauté the onion, lightly seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper, in olive oil until the onion softens and starts to brown around the edges. Add the capers and 2 tsp. crushed dried thyme and sauté over medium heat for five minutes. Spread the onion and caper mixture over the bottom of the baked tart crust.
Whisk together the egg, cheese, and freshly ground black pepper until they are thoroughly mixed. Pour the egg mixture over the capers and onions, then top with the crumbled feta, making sure all the ingredients are evenly distributed. Sprinkle 1 tsp. of crushed dried thyme over the top of the tart.
Bake the tart at 350°F for 35 – 40 minutes, or until the top of the filling just starts to brown.
Remove the tart from the pan and serve hot or at room temperature.
Capers and Eggs (Κάπαρη με τ’Αυγά)
Adapted from Η Κουζίνα της Κιμώλου (The Cuisine of Kimolos) by Φιλένα Βενάρδου (Filena Venardou).
1 cup diced yellow onions, 1/8” dice
1/2 cup capers
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Drain and rinse the capers. Put them in a bowl of cold water to soak for 15 minutes, drain, and spread out the capers on a paper towel to dry.
Sauté the onion, lightly seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper, in olive oil until the onion softens and starts to brown around the edges. Add the capers and sauté over medium heat for five minutes. Turn the heat down to low.
Whisk together the eggs and some freshly ground black pepper. Pour the eggs over the capers and onions and allow the eggs to slightly set. When the eggs start to solidify, stir them continuously with a spatula, being sure to scrape the eggs from the sides of the pan, until the eggs are cooked through, but still moist.
Serve with Greek Village Bread (a recipe is in Tastes Like Home: Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska) and slices of manouri or ricotta salata cheese.
This is my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging #112, sponsored this week by Simona at Briciole.